There are more than 70,000 books about World War II on Amazon so any claim about an “untold story” as the publisher blurb for Wings of War should be suspect. This short book by David Fairbank White and Margaret Stanback White recounts the impact of North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang on the success of the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. In truth, it is a well-known tale recounted in many books, but for WWII buffs, it reminds one of the old joke: After the crash of 2008, a man kept calling his stock broker’s office. When told for the 10th time that the man had committed suicide and asked why he kept calling, he replied, “I know, I just like the sound of it.” And so it is with this story: To read about the incredible drama and triumphs of the war is just so gratifying that the new books keep coming. This one is a welcome addition to the field.
Field Marshal Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, reportedly told Allied interrogators that when he saw the Mustangs accompanying American B-17 bombers over Berlin, he knew “the jig was up.” For the first time, the deadly German fighter planes would no longer have clear runs at the bombers but would face a superior adversary. Getting the leadership of the Army Air Force to adopt the Mustang as the bombers’ principal fighter escort, however, was its own struggle.
The P-51 (P was the designation for all fighters and based on their designation as “pursuit” planes in the 1930s) was designed, ironically, by a brilliant German immigrant, Edgar Schmued. The British government requested American companies submit plans for a new fighter to complement the estimable Supermarine Spitfire. North American Aviation, Schmued’s company, produced the plans and a mock-up for the Mustang (named by the British) in about three months. The plane was beautiful. To this day it looks completely modern as a version hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The P-51 test version performed as well as it looked. It eventually could fly faster than 400 miles per hour, climb 2,300 feet per minute, and fly over 2,080 miles before refueling, all outperforming any German fighter.
The first versions of the plane were ordered by the British but the engine, a 1,120-horsepower Allison, produced insufficient power at altitudes above 25,000 feet. This meant the P-51 would only function at low altitudes, useful combating German attack planes in the Battle of Britain. But the B-17 bombers attacking targets in Germany were high-flyers and were attacked at 30,000 feet by superior Nazi fighter planes, particularly the new Focke-Wulf 190. The appalling loss rate of bombers could not be sustained—of 229 B-17 bombers over the ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt, 60 were destroyed and 17 crashed after the bomb run.
A British test pilot, Ronnie Harker, came up with the idea of replacing the Allison engine in the P-51 with a Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 (named after a species of falcon) capable of producing nearly 50 percent more horsepower. This transformed the Mustang into an unbeatable killer at low and high altitudes. This, combined with its vastly superior range, created the perfect escort fighter for the big bombers. But it was two more years until the newly revised P-51 would dominate the skies. Bureaucratic wrangling was the problem.
Here Wings of War tells a fascinating story of the military’s quest to adopt the hybrid plane with its American fuselage and British engine. The American Army Air Corps commander, General Hap Arnold, wanted nothing to do with a plane that had a British engine. In fact, the leadership of the Air Corps initially and persistently believed they did not even need fighter escorts. If they could just fly enough bombers into Germany, they could destroy any target and could ward off any enemy fighters with the B-17’s 12 Browning 0.50 caliber machine guns on nose, tail, waist, and belly. But they were wrong. Up until the introduction of the Mustang, the P-47 Thunderbolt fighters lacked the range to escort the bombers beyond the German border. They would maddeningly turn back just as the German fighters began their attacks. And the attacks were lethal.
The advocates who succeeded in convincing the brass to commit to the P-51 included Tommy Hitchcock, James Winant, and Robert Lovett. Hitchcock was a particularly appealing figure—an aristocratic World War I pilot, war hero, renowned polo player, and a general daredevil. After he first piloted the P-51, he was immediately aware of its potential and worked tirelessly to promote it, including using his Ivy League connections to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to look into the issue. Tragically, Hitchcock died trying to solve a problem with the stability of the P-51 when supplementary fuel tanks were added to the plane. Winant, ambassador to Great Britain, was friends with Hitchcock and supported him with the Pentagon. Lovett was the undersecretary for war for air who also pushed for adoption of the Merlin-supercharged Mustang. The Whites nicely capture this bureaucratic conflict.
Once the Merlin-powered Mustang entered service in 1944, it immediately produced stunning results. The best German fighters were overmatched by the highly maneuverable and fast Mustang. It was such a fine aircraft that it even dominated the advanced German planes like the revolutionary jet-powered Messerschmitt 262. The combined American and British bombing campaigns were only modestly successful in slowing the rise in German aircraft production despite the brutal destruction of German cities. But in the air, the Mustangs depleted the Luftwaffe’s fighters to the point that by the Normandy landings, the Allies controlled the skies over Northern France. Without that domination, Overlord would have failed.
In all this is a grand story of the technical prowess of the U.S.-British alliance. It is also a story of heroism and endurance that seems impossible for today’s youth. Perhaps they can rise to the achievements of the warriors of the Eighth Air Force if confronting a similar existential threat. But the trauma of a bombing run, so admirably described by the White duo in Wings of War, required superhuman determination to survive while carrying out the mission.
One of the most moving experiences of my life was to fly in a restored P-51 Mustang at the rehearsal for the Washington, D.C., flyover celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. After the exhilarating flight in a four-plane squadron of Mustangs, the debriefing left me overwhelmed thinking of the bravery of those hard men that took on and destroyed the Luftwaffe in those planes.
There are other books that detail the path for development of the Mustang and the men who shepherded the introduction of the pivotal aircraft in the war. But for the reader seeking a good introduction to the bomber war and its key players, Wings of War is a good place to start.
Wings of War: The World War II Fighter Plane That Saved the Allies and The Believers Who Made it Fly
by David Fairbank White and Margaret Stanback White
Dutton Caliber, 336 pp., $29
Stanley Goldfarb is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and father of Washington Free Beacon chairman Michael Goldfarb.